At the time of this review, only one episode remains in season one of Discovery. It’s safe to say the timing of this book coincides with what’s been revealed so far to preserve spoilers and maximum impact when the time came for reveals. That said… there will be spoilers here. It can’t be otherwise.
This story takes place in the year 2246, approximately ten years prior to the “Battle at the Binary Stars” (Star Trek: Discovery), and nineteen years before the U.S.S. Enterprise under the command of Captain James T. Kirk encounters the energy barrier at the edge of our galaxy (Star Trek: The Original Series — “Where No Man Has Gone Before”).
I would strongly recommend readers refresh their memory regarding the massacre at Tarsus IV (“The Conscience of the King”). The events of that horror are the backdrop of this novel.
“The revolution is successful, but survival depends on drastic measures. Your continued existence represents a threat to the well-being of society. Your lives means slow death to the more valued members of the colony. Therefore, I have no alternative but to sentence you to death. Your execution is so ordered. Signed, Kodos, governor of Tarsus IV.”
— Anton Karidian
“Kodos the Executioner. Summary: Governor of Tarsus IV twenty Earth years ago. Invoked martial law. Slaughtered 50% of population Earth colony that planet. Burned body found when Earth forces arrived. No positive identification. Case closed.”
— Enterprise computer
Star Trek, “The Conscience of the King”
Say what you will about Star Trek: Discovery. This series has serious guts. For those who have paid attention to the history that unfolded in the decades between Enterprise and The Original Series, that history is filled with challenges that Starfleet and the Federation had to overcome before the bright and shiny future could manifest on the historic five-year mission. As Discovery is set in that time period before Kirk took the bridge, it’s running headlong into some of the darkest years in that history. Since the tie-in novels are operating in conjunction with the series, that means these books must demonstrate that same mettle. This is the second such novel, and as with the first one, the primary mission here is to fill in some Trek history, some character backstory and expansion, and to really get visceral on the connections between the new series and the classic continuity. And, as books should rightfully do, the objective is to dig deep and unflinchingly into that history to explore how the core values we understand at the center of Star Trek got forged and preserved.
At this story opens, Commander Philippa Georgiou is serving aboard the USS Narbonne, a Starfleet transport vessel inbound on a rescue mission to Tarsus IV following a plague that has ravaged the Earth colony. On the surface, Lt. Cmdr. Gabriel Lorca (the Prime Universe version, before the arrival of his recently unveiled Mirror Universe counterpart) is part of a Starfleet contingent assigned to the colony. While the transport is due to arrive within the day, early reports said Starfleet could not bring help for weeks, and the result is the mass execution of half the colony, ostensibly “sacrificed” that the other half may survive. Lorca suffers not only the loss of innocents under his protection, but also the loss of a loved one. By the time the ship arrives to assist in relief efforts, the hunt is on for Kodos the Executioner and his followers.
“Where the hell did we go wrong? Two centuries ago on Earth, we damned near bombed ourselves out of existence, and those people lucky enough to survive that still found ways to keep fighting over what was left. We got lucky that the Vulcans showed up and opted to give a shit about us. They handed us a second chance on a silver platter, and for a while there, we looked and acted like we might deserve it… Imagine what those first Vulcans to visit Earth would say if they could see what we let happen on Tarsus IV. What about those who raised hell when we finally decided to take that first warp flight out of our solar system? It’s not like we didn’t give them reason to worry. And yet they stuck with us. They stood beside us during the Xindi crisis, fought a war with us against the Romulans, and helped us found the Federation because they finally believed we were ready to act like a mature species, capable of standing like grown-ups on an interstellar stage. How did we betray that trust? By panicking in the face of crisis and killing four thousand of our own people because it was the expedient thing to do. The four thousand people who survived that purge don’t deserve the gift of survival they were given… There were those who either believed as he did, or found they could live with it because it helped saved their own asses. Some of those people are dead, and we took a lot more of them into custody, but you and I both know that hiding among those survivors are people who are thanking deities or random chance or the fact that Kodos found them useful enough to keep alive. Some of them believed in what he was doing, even if they never admit that for as long as they live. Tell me how any of that espouses our lofty Federation values.”
“It doesn’t. But you can’t blame an entire group of people for the actions of a few extremists. History is full of dire consequences brought on by that sort of thinking.”
— Gabriel Lorca and Philippa Georgiou
There are a couple of ways to look at this story.
As a political thriller, this story feels heavy on procedure and more restrained on the emotion, not unlike some episodes of The Next Generation. After all, Starfleet is trained to handle emergencies, though it could be argued that no one is ever truly trained to handle a massacre like this. Even so, the emotion is most definitely there, barely contained, embodied in the character of Lorca. The backstory of Tarsus IV previously revealed to us that Kodos was a eugenicist (think Khan), as that original episode was only a generation removed from World War II. Today, the story is updated to include themes of immigration and authoritarianism. The question of “what kind of a leader do you want?” is one that resonates here with very different kinds of overtones. How does a community deal with a crisis of starvation? Or one of genocide? This story considers just how little it takes to strip away the higher values at our core, and how much it takes to maintain those values. As we look around at our present and see how everything pulls our own people apart, a story like this stresses just how fragile the idea of civilization can be.
As a backstory and character examination of two of Discovery‘s leadership roles (and my two favorite characters on the series), this book does an excellent job of really peeling back the layers. On screen, Georgiou made an impact on me almost immediately as the prototypically perfect exemplar of everything a Starfleet captain should be, contrasted with the “bad captain” that Lorca manifested. These two characters kept me coming back for more while the rest of the series unfolded in a way that revealed its core Trek-ness. To have a novel revolving around Georgiou and Lorca is amazing, and I’m grateful to have it. In the case of Lorca, I have to remind myself that this is our first actual encounter with Prime Universe Lorca, and it’s really interesting to see the parallels and contrasts with the character we’ve come to know on screen.
Special mention to the cameos. As we know from the classic episode, a young Jim Kirk was able to make a positive identification of Kodos, and he plays his part here. We also have the unveiling of the new Constitution class starships in Trek history here, and with it, the appearance of Enterprise under the command of Captain Robert April. We also get some classic aliens from across the various series, such as a Denobulan and a Betazoid, as well as some history on the Betazoid people that kind of explains why we didn’t see them around before TNG. I feel like if they’d come forward as telepaths before this point instead of hiding that fact to keep from scaring other races, it might have been easier to track Kodos, but as it played out, it’s more satisfying anyway given what we know already.
A good read overall, most satisfying and enjoyable. I am impressed with how well the subject matter of Kodos and the massacre were handled. Between that, the character backstories, and the consistent Star Trek on-point messaging, this is the kind of book that keeps me coming back to Star Trek novels as a whole when I can. If the Discovery line keeps operating in concert with the series writers to create stories like this, stories that feel like Star Trek and bring the new series ever closer to the fold in my own mind, I’ll definitely be on board for the long haul.